Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) was a Chinese Modernist artist known for her female nudes. Although Yuliang’s work is often praised for its lack of clothing, there are a number of artworks and self-portraits that feature female fashions from the early to mid 20th century. These pieces of art in Yuliang’s work not only display clothing items, but also reveal two cultures that the artist identified with: one of birth and the other of refuge.
Yuliang’s life began as an orphan who was sold into sex slavery at age 14. She was then “bought” by a general who made her his second wife. The man encouraged her to paint, which lead her to attend the prestigious Shanghai Art School, and later, fellowships in Paris and Rome.
Pan Yuliang found success after returning to China, but the nudity in her artwork caused scandal. By 1937, she left China after the invasion by the Japanese. She sought refuge in Paris and continued to work as an artist. She passed away in 1977 with a legacy as a renowned artist whose work continues to garner exhibitions and international auctions.
The Yuliang Beauty
Yuliang’s art was noted by art historian Phyllis Teo as a “flux of transformations where conflicting dichotomies of East and West, tradition and modernity, male chauvinism and emerging feminism co-existed.” Her clothed figures were feminine and were created in an idealized image: well-manicured young women in brightly colored qipao blouses and dresses with heavily applied makeup.
Beauty ideals before Yuliang’s departure from China went from Western-inspired Hollywood looks to the farm workers popularized by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Some Chinese women sought beauty and fashion inspiration from American culture, which was derived from the two countries’ relations during World War II. As Mao gained powered, the farmer became both the political and cultural ideal. Bare face, tan skin, and the utilitarian Zhongshan suit became the new way of adornment for Chinese women, which was meant to deconstruct notions of class, gender, and Western influence.
Because of her artwork, previous travels, and her ultimate leave of China, it appears Yuliang embrace components of the pre-Revolution Chinese cultural wares, but also that of Western. The pieces analyzed above are women of Chinese origin with pale skin and black hair in either cultural Chinese or Western dress.
In Girl Playing Violin (no date), the seated young woman looks upward with a closed smile while holding a violin. The piece features her with a chin-length hairstyle and lightly applied makeup. She is wearing a Western billowy white blouse and black ensemble that appears as either a black jumper or sleeveless dress.
Jeune Femme au Kimono (no date) also portrays the image of a seated young woman looking off frame, but she is adorned in Eastern fashions. The woman is wearing a black, embroidered qipao jacket over a sea green silver flecked dress. Her hair is curled and pinned with heavily rouged cheeks and lips, over-plucked eyebrows, and painted red nails.
Similar to the figures she created in her artwork, Yuliang also presented an international wardrobe of both Eastern and Western pieces in her self-portraits. Her Self-Portrait Dressed in Black (1940) features the artist in a black qipao gown with dragon detail along the shoulders and collar. She styled her hair in a half pinned, bisected style and makeup that evokes a formal or special occasion.
Yuliang’s Window Self-Portrait (no date) contrasts the previous piece with a short sleeved red day dress with a contrasting pointed collar. She accessorized the look with red pearl necklace and hair styled in victory rolls. The outfit appears in a 1940s Western style, which corresponds with her refuge to France in the late 1930s.
Since there is a lack of information concerning both her self-portraits and her own work, there is no way to make an assumption that she chose to forgo Eastern dress after her asylum to France or vice versa. Or that she opposed the Cultural Revolution dress code by adorning her figures in traditional Chinese and Western clothing. What can be seen is that Yuliang and her women appear as stylish figures who have power and confidence, no matter the origin of their dress.